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from New York Times, December 12, 2003

An Online Search for Fun, Without a Look for Love
By S. Lee Jamison

POWDER DAY!!!! Who's going snowboarding this weekend?"

"Do you want to bowl?"

"SOOOOOOOOOOO bored -- 21/m really bored -- need ppl to talk to."

The Internet has revolutionized romance by linking the like-minded. But these people posting messages on Web sites are not looking for love.

They just want to be friends.

When Daniela Droke, 25, moved to Manhattan from Virginia more than a year ago, she found it difficult to meet people. "New York is hard sometimes," she said. "Not because people are unfriendly, but busy and wrapped up in stuff."

So she signed up for the Lunch Club (www.thelunchclub.net), an online service in New York City that brings strangers together for meals. At one of the club's lunches, at Mosto on Second Avenue, she met Melanie Taylor.

"She just seemed really nice, and we started hanging out," Ms. Droke said. They began to meet for bowling, dinner and movies.

They even sat out the blackout together. Ms. Taylor, 26, who said that she and Ms. Droke "hit it off right at the get-go," thought that her new friend should not stay in her apartment alone and told her to start walking her way. " `I've got a flashlight,' " she recalled telling Ms. Droke on the phone. " `I'll come down to get you.' "

Friendster, Craig's List, Lunch Club, Social Circles and other online services feature hundreds of daily postings from people looking for friends. To Jose de Lasa, co-founder of Social Circles, this means that there is a successful Internet business model beyond sex.

"Our philosophy is to separate ourselves from online dating and matchmaking services," he said. "We are not about matching people, but about making a conducive environment for making friends."

One of the most popular online friendship forums is on Craig's List, a free bulletin-board service with branches in major American cities. The site already had a lot of traffic in its categories for romance and sex ("women seeking men," "erotic services," etc.), when in November 2000 it added a more friendship-oriented "activities partners" section.

Since then, it has drawn a huge response; total listings each month for activity partners on the New York site (newyork.craigslist.org) grew to 3,500 in October 2003 from about 1,600 in January 2003, said Marcia Estarija, Craig's List's community relations manager. The number of people checking these ads also ballooned: to 950,000 page views in October from 651,000 in January 2003.

The people-needing-people postings range from an opera fan with an extra ticket to one titled "Ping-Pong in Brooklyn." Skiers are looking for skiers, and students are looking for study partners for the bar exam. There are requests for yoga partners as well as drinking buddies for pub crawls.

While Craig's List helps strangers find one another, Friendster.com helps introduce friends of friends. When Lexie Aliotti, 25, a Manhattan publicist, visits home in California, she hates to interrupt the lives of her San Diego buddies whom she doesn't speak to regularly. So she has a file on Friendster. Through it, her friends can see when she will be around, and if none of them can meet up with her, they can suggest someone else they know on Friendster, to meet her to hang out at the beach.

"There's a reason you're friends with the people you know in the first place, and the likelihood that you will have something in common with one of their friends is greater," Ms. Aliotti said.

Friendster is a free service. To sign up, users fill out a profile with contact information and list whether they are looking for serious relationships, friends or activity partners.

After living in Manhattan for 14 years, Jonathan Erbe, 35, an Internet publisher, moved to California. He sees Friendster as a way to expand his social network. He claims that even people who have been scared off by the exaggerations in online dating will like Friendster.

"The profiles are amazing -- by not trying to promote yourself, just being who you are," he said. "It's so refreshing."

In his own profile, Mr. Erbe wrote in the "favorite books" section: "Hmmm. I have the best library no one's ever read. A lot about metaphysics, and intellectual property . . . oh, and meditation, Buddhism, the I Ching, and maybe a little witchcraft. Lord help me read them!"

Just as a sweep through a large cocktail party sometimes only turns up bores, online postings for companionship are not always successful. David Lo, 26, adjunct professor at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, posted a message on Craig's List in November for "someone to hang out with but not to spend a lot of money." He met only one person with this plea; his ads for bowling and playing pool worked better.

For those who want to meet people but want safety in numbers, there are Web sites like Lunch Club and Social Circles, which arrange group activities.

Jared Nissim, 30, who lives in Lower Manhattan, started the Lunch Club because he wasn't meeting people. "I worked at home and spent all day by myself," he said. So he put an ad on Craig's List in December 2001 "inviting complete and total strangers to have lunch with me."

Only three people showed up for that first lunch. But the people he met at lunch started coming back and meeting one another. So he decided to organize the events as formal Lunch Club activities.

Club members fill out a profile at the site and sign up for lunches, brunches, dinners or parties. The only expenses for the Monday dinners and Wednesday lunches are the cost of the meals and tips. At other events, like Sunday brunches and Friday happy hours, admission fees are included in the fixed prices.

Mr. Nissim said that more than 5,000 people have attended close to 300 gatherings, figures he attributes to common sense ("eating alone is boring") and the lessened social pressures, because most of those attending are not looking for romance.

By 1:30 p.m., on a recent blustery Wednesday at Paquitos restaurant in the East Village, a dozen people who use Lunch Club sat down to eat with strangers. Mr. Nissim greeted each person and circulated from table to table, making sure conversation and introductions flowed.

One in attendance, Robin Segal, 38, a massage therapist, discovered Lunch Club while home recovering from surgery. She is self-employed, so she found the club a "nice way to meet a lot of different kinds of people with very low stakes."

Across the room at another table was Brad Stoneberg, 41, a trader who works from home. He is married and lives on the Upper West Side but joined Lunch Club a year ago. "I don't cook," he said. "I have a weekly MetroCard. This doesn't cost much. But it's just a nice thing -- go out to a restaurant and there's nothing ambiguous going on."

Social Circles brings together members with common interests living in and around New York City. Founded in 1997, Social Circles (socialcircles.com) provides events ranging from softball games in the park, to whitewater rafting trips, to wine tastings.

Karenne Rossi, managing partner at Social Circles, thinks that the idea of a virtual social organizer is now completely accepted.

"Web sites like Craig's List and Friendster," she said, "have taken the dating stigma away from using activity partner services."

The Social Circles site does not post profiles. And applicants meet with membership counselors (other members of the club) to make sure the goals of the club are understood -- it is not about finding dates, but about having a good time.

According to Mr. De Lasa, its co-founder, Social Circles has more than 4,000 members, and over 72,000 have attended its events. Membership costs range from $79 to $99 a month. This is more expensive than other online activity sites, but Lawrence Larisma, 30, an investment banker who joined Social Circles three years ago, equates the price to "a gym membership." He has participated in a range of activities, from the boccie game that cost him $5 to a $550 weekend ski trip. He finds that it is hard to get friends together to do something as complicated as whitewater rafting. But on Social Circles, he said, "If you want to do something, here it is, you go."

He also has found that he likes his fellow members. "You meet people at the happy hour," he said, "and it's almost like a college bar except older now, and more disposable income."